Early Signs of a Controlling Man: Unmasking Manipulative Behavior

It’s no secret that healthy relationships are built on mutual trust, respect, and open communication. But sometimes, you might encounter a partner who tries to exert a disproportionate amount of control over your life. 

It’s crucial to be able to recognize the early signs of a controlling man, as this type of partner can be emotionally draining and potentially damaging to your well-being. 

As a dating and relationship coach for women, I have seen these patterns emerge time and time again, and I’d like to share my insights with you.

The first step in identifying a controlling man is to pay attention to the subtle ways he may try to control your thoughts, decisions, and interactions.

 Controlling men often have a manipulative approach to communication, frequently using guilt, blame, or passive-aggressive tactics to get their way. 

They may appear charming and caring at first but watch out for red flags such as framing their demands as suggestions, questioning your decisions, or comparing you to their past partners.

It’s also important to recognize the tell-tale signs of jealousy and possessiveness early on in a relationship. While it’s natural for people to feel a little envious or protective towards their partner from time to time, excessive jealousy can be a clear indication of control issues. 

A controlling man may constantly check up on you, accuse you of being unfaithful without reason, or try to limit your interactions with friends, family, and coworkers. 

Trust your instincts and don’t dismiss your feelings if you sense that something is off, especially in the early stages of a relationship.

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Early Warning Signs

I can tell you that one of the most important things to look out for when starting a new relationship is the presence of early warning signs of a controlling partner. In this section, we’ll cover the following key red flags: 

  • Jealousy
  • Constant Criticism
  • Manipulative Behavior
  • Gaslighting, and
  • Possessiveness.


Jealousy can be a natural human emotion, but when it becomes excessive, it is a major red flag. A controlling partner may express jealousy over your relationships with friends, family members, or even strangers, constantly questioning your loyalty and trustworthiness. 

They might demand that you cut off contact with certain people or become upset if you spend time with others without their involvement. This can lead to isolation and reduced self-esteem, both of which are common abusive tactics.

Early signs of excessive jealousy may include monitoring your social media activity, insisting on knowing your whereabouts when you are not together, and even questioning your intentions with others. 

The insecurity that fuels these actions can create a toxic environment that only gets worse over time. It’s important to recognize the difference between envy and jealousy: envy can be a temporary feeling, while jealousy may indicate a deeper problem with trust and control in the relationship.

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Constant Criticism

A controlling partner might use constant criticism as a means to break down your self-esteem and make you feel dependent on their approval. They may nitpick your appearance, your accomplishments, or even your personality, causing you to doubt your own worth. Additionally, they might compare you to other people, further invalidating your feelings and promoting comparison-based self-esteem.

These criticisms often start subtly, such as suggesting that you wear a certain outfit or that you haven’t achieved as much as someone else. 

Over time, they can grow more aggressive and degrading, leaving you feeling trapped and helpless. Remember that healthy relationships are built on mutual respect and supportive communication. An ideal partner should lift you up, not tear you down.

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Manipulative Behavior

Manipulation is another telltale sign of a controlling partner. This tactic can take many forms, such as playing the victim to elicit sympathy, using guilt to get what they want, or twisting your words to make you feel confused and doubting your own judgment.

It can be difficult to recognize manipulation at first, so it’s crucial to trust your intuition and assess whether you feel consistently manipulated or coerced in the relationship.

For example, your partner may give you the silent treatment when they don’t get their way, or they might use flattery to steer the conversation in a new direction. 

Manipulative behavior often aims to control another person’s emotions and actions – make sure to stand firm in your boundaries and listen to the alarm bells ringing within when faced with such tactics.

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Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that involves making someone question their own perceptions, memories, or sanity. 

A controlling partner may employ gaslighting techniques to distort your reality and make you doubt your own experience, leading to a loss of confidence and increased dependence on them for emotional validation. This can involve actions such as denying that certain events occurred, trivializing your feelings, or suggesting that you are making things up.

Early gaslighting signs might include subtle discrepancies between what your partner says and does, or instances where they challenge your thoughts without any reason. 

As gaslighting intensifies, it becomes more difficult to trust your own instincts and judgment, creating a vicious cycle of dependency and self-doubt. Recognizing and addressing gaslighting in its early stages is crucial in preventing this manipulative tactic from taking root in your relationship.


Last but not least, possessiveness is a classic sign of a controlling partner. Possessive behavior stems from a deep-rooted fear that they might lose you, leading them to be overly vigilant about your interactions with others. In its most extreme form, this could involve restricting your access to transportation, money, or social opportunities.

Early signs of possessiveness may include continuous texting or calling when you are apart, intrusive questions about your whereabouts, or insistence on accompanying you everywhere you go. 

While it’s normal for partners to care about each other’s well-being and safety, excessive possessiveness is an unhealthy attempt to control and dominate the relationship. It’s essential to maintain your independence and reject this kind of toxic behavior.

Early signs of a controlling man

Isolation Tactics

When it comes to identifying the early signs of a controlling man, one key area to pay attention to is their isolation tactics. These can manifest in several ways, and it’s important for women to be aware of these signs to protect themselves from unhealthy relationships. 

In my experience advising and coaching women, I’ve observed three main tactics that controlling men often use: Limiting Time with Friends and Family, Controlling Social Life, and Creating Emotional Distance. In this section, I’ll discuss each of these tactics in detail and provide examples to help you better understand them.

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Limiting Time with Friends and Family

One common tactic that controlling men use is limiting their partner’s time with friends and family.

They may claim that they just want more quality time together, but in reality, they are trying to isolate their partner from their support system. This can happen gradually, with the controlling man gradually pushing friends and family away until the only person left is him.

For example, he may make it difficult for you to make plans with your loved ones by constantly changing his own schedule, making it seem like it’s your fault for not being able to accommodate everyone.

He might also frequently criticize the people closest to you, planting seeds of doubt in your mind and making you question their loyalty or intentions. This way, he can effectively isolate you from the people who care about you the most.

Controlling Social Life

Another tactic used by controlling men is taking charge of their partner’s social life. This may involve dictating who they can and cannot spend time with, what activities they can engage in, and even monitoring their social media accounts.

These controlling behaviors can leave women feeling like they’re constantly being watched and judged, effectively isolating them from their social circle.

An example of this might be, your partner insisting on always being present when you attend social events or meet up with friends. He may even subtly discourage you from attending certain events without him or attempt to make you feel guilty for wanting to socialize without his presence.

In extreme cases, a controlling man may even try to sabotage your friendships by spreading false rumors or causing conflict between you and your friends.

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Creating Emotional Distance

Finally, some controlling men create emotional distance by gradually withdrawing their affection and support, making their partner feel lonely and dependent on them. They might withhold communication, affection, or even financial resources as a way of asserting control over their partner.

Imagine that every time you have a disagreement with your partner, he withdraws his affection and becomes cold and distant until you apologize, regardless of who was at fault. This behavior manipulates you into feeling like you constantly need to please him to maintain his love and support. Over time, this emotional isolation can damage your self-esteem and make you feel entirely dependent on him for your emotional well-being.

In conclusion, it’s crucial for women to be aware of these isolation tactics and recognize them in their relationships. By identifying these behaviors early, women can protect themselves from controlling partners and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships. Remember, a loving partner will support your interests, friendships, and emotional needs, rather than trying to isolate and control you.

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Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a subtle yet powerful form of manipulation that can leave you feeling confused, humiliated, and isolated. It’s crucial to be aware of the early signs of a controlling man in order to protect yourself from getting caught in an unhealthy relationship. In this section, I’ll cover several common tactics of emotional abuse, how they manifest, and tips for identifying them in your relationship.


Guilt-tripping is a common tactic used by controlling partners to manipulate you into doing what they want. They might make you feel guilty or responsible for their feelings, often in a passive-aggressive manner. For example, they might say things like, “If you really loved me, you’d do X for me” or “I can’t believe you’d choose your friends over me.”1 In the long run, guilt-tripping erodes your sense of self-worth, leaving you vulnerable to further manipulation.

  • What to do? You must recognize that you and your partner are separate individuals with your own needs and desires. Accept that you cannot be responsible for someone else’s happiness or emotions.

Recommended: 8 Early Signs of A Narcissistic Man. 

Undermining Confidence

Emotionally abusive partners often attack your confidence by criticizing or belittling you in both private and public settings. They might question your decisions, make you doubt your abilities, or imply that you’re not smart or attractive enough2. Over time, this can leave you completely dependent on your partner’s approval, making it difficult to assert your needs or stand up for yourself.

  • What to do? Cultivate self-love and remind yourself of your worth, talents, and accomplishments. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family who can counterbalance your partner’s negativity.

Playing the Victim

Abusive partners often play the victim to deflect blame and garner sympathy. They can twist situations to make you feel guilty for their own bad behavior, claiming that they’re “just misunderstood” or “only human.”3 As a result, you might find yourself constantly apologizing and bending over backward to appease them.

  • What to do? Recognize that everyone is responsible for their own actions, and it’s not your job to fix or save your partner. Maintain clear boundaries and don’t let their victim mentality manipulate you.

Mean Jokes and Insults

Some controlling partners use humor to mask their abusive behavior. They may make sarcastic remarks or put you down in a joking manner, claiming they’re “just teasing” when confronted. These “jokes” can cause real harm to your self-esteem and belittle your worth4.

  • What to do? Communicate when you feel hurt by their comments and establish boundaries for acceptable behavior. Trust your instincts; if it doesn’t feel like a joke, it probably isn’t.

By staying aware of these signs of emotional abuse and taking proactive steps to protect yourself, you can prevent controlling partners from eroding your self-worth and maintain your own personal power within a relationship.

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Controlling Actions and Decisions

Telling You What to Do

A controlling man will often try to dictate how you should behave, where you should be, and what you should wear. You might start to notice that in conversations, he always has an opinion on your life choices and tends to dismiss or judge your decisions. In a healthy relationship, your partner should listen to your opinions, respect your decisions, and support you as an individual. For example, if you want to take a painting class, a supportive partner would encourage you rather than telling you it’s a waste of time or that you don’t have the talent for it.

I’ve seen this type of controlling behavior in many different situations. One client, for instance, had a boyfriend who would micromanage her every move, from the clothes she wore to the friends she was allowed to spend time with. 

This is not a sign of love, but rather an unhealthy attempt to control and manipulate the partner.

It’s important to be aware of this warning sign and stand up for yourself in a firm but gentle manner. You have the right to make your own decisions and live your life on your terms. Setting boundaries with your partner early on in the relationship is crucial to ensuring a healthy balance of power and respect.

Monitoring Your Activities

Another early sign of a controlling man is if he starts to monitor your activities obsessively. He may check your phone, browse through your messages or social media accounts, or interrogate you about your whereabouts. This behavior is intrusive and deeply disrespectful of your privacy and personal space. In a healthy relationship, trust is a fundamental cornerstone, and your partner should not feel the need to constantly verify your actions.

For example, let’s say you’re planning to go out with your friends for a girls’ night out. A controlling man might insist on knowing the exact location, who will be there, what time you’ll be home, and even whether you’ll be drinking. Instead, a loving and trusting partner would give you the freedom to enjoy yourself and simply ask that you stay safe.

If you notice that your partner is monitoring your activities, it’s important to address the issue and communicate your discomfort. Assert that you are a trustworthy individual deserving of respect, and that your personal life should not be subject to constant surveillance.

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Taking Charge of Your Finances

Lastly, a controlling man may attempt to take charge of your finances and tell you how to spend your money. He might insist on knowing the details of your bank account, give unsolicited advice on your financial decisions, or try to dictate your spending habits. Financial control is yet another means of manipulation and is indicative of an unhealthy relationship dynamic.

Imagine, for instance, that you receive a bonus at work and want to treat yourself to a vacation or a new wardrobe. A controlling partner might criticize your decision or tell you that you should be saving the money instead. A healthy partner, on the other hand, would celebrate your accomplishment and support your choices.

If you find yourself in a situation where your partner attempts to control your finances, it’s crucial to take a stand. Establish boundaries and make it clear that you are capable of managing your own money. Discussing financial goals and priorities together is important, but remember that in a healthy relationship, each partner should have autonomy over their own finances.

Coercive Control

Coercive control is a critical aspect to look out for in the early stages of a relationship, as it often lays the foundation for an abusive one. A controlling man may exhibit various behaviors meant to isolate, manipulate, and create fear in his partner. In this section, we will discuss the different types of coercive control techniques, such as creating fear and anxiety, setting impractical boundaries, and using physical abuse.

Creating Fear and Anxiety

One of the first tactics a controlling man may use is to create fear and anxiety in his partner. This could involve regularly expressing anger and frustration, making threats, or using emotional manipulation to make the woman feel constantly on edge. These behaviors can cause you to feel insecure in the relationship and worried about upsetting your partner.

For example, you might notice that he frequently raises his voice or becomes agitated when you don’t obey his commands or adhere to his preferences. These actions make it increasingly difficult for you to express your thoughts and feelings openly. As a result, you may start walking on eggshells around him, fearing his negative reactions.

Also, he may use passive-aggressive behaviors to instill anxiety, such as giving you the silent treatment or withholding affection until he feels you’ve met his expectations. It’s essential to recognize these patterns early on and take steps to address them. These tactics are not healthy or acceptable ways to communicate in a relationship.

Setting Impractical Boundaries

Another sign of coercive control is when a man tries to impose impractical boundaries on your activities and relationships. For instance, he may become overly possessive and demand to know your whereabouts at all times or try to control who you see, when, and for how long. By doing this, he can create a sense of isolation and limit your support network.

A controlling partner might also criticize your friendships or family connections, making you doubt the people closest to you. For example, he may say things like, “Your friend is such a bad influence” or “Your family just doesn’t understand our relationship.” These statements serve to further isolate you and strengthen his control.

Additionally, he may set unrealistic expectations for you, such as expecting you to always put his needs above your own or to be available to him at all times. These expectations can make you feel guilty and obligated, preventing you from pursuing your interests and maintaining your independence.

Using Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is an extreme form of coercive control, and it’s crucial to recognize these signs early on. 

A controlling man might start with so-called “playful” physical actions, like grabbing your arm firmly, holding you down, or pushing you against the wall. He may then downplay or rationalize these behaviors, making you question your perceptions.

He may also become more aggressive in public, such as through road rage or getting into heated arguments with strangers. These incidents can be a precursor to more severe forms of physical abuse in the relationship.

In some cases, a controlling partner might use more subtle forms of physical abuse, like blocking doorways or standing too close so that you cannot leave the room. These tactics are meant to intimidate and exert power over you. It’s vital to recognize and acknowledge these behaviors for what they are and seek support from trusted friends, family, or professionals.

MORE: 10 Early Signs that A Man Is Abusive, Violent or Toxic. 

Help and Support

Recognizing Red Flags

One important aspect I like to emphasize is the ability to identify early signs of a controlling man. Recognizing these red flags can help you avoid getting into an unhealthy relationship or identify when a current one is turning toxic. 

One clear red flag is when a partner tries to assert excessive power over you, making decisions without considering your input or disregarding your feelings altogether.

Another warning sign is emotional abuse. This often includes belittling, insulting, and manipulating, which can leave you feeling unheard and unworthy. It’s important to be aware of any negative patterns that emerge in your romantic relationship and distinguish them as early on as possible.

Take note of how your partner acts around your friends and family members. If they try to isolate you from your support network or are constantly critical of the people you care about, this is yet another red flag indicating a controlling personality.

Seeking Professional Help

When you notice these red flags in your relationship, it’s essential to seek professional help. Therapists and counselors can be invaluable resources for understanding the underlying issues and can work with you to develop coping strategies and set boundaries. 

Moreover, relationship coaching with a dedicated dating and relationship expert can provide you with personalized tools to navigate your situation.

Organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Pathways to Safety International also offer help and support for those in controlling or abusive relationships. These groups understand the intricacies of a toxic relationship and provide essential resources to empower you to take action and regain control over your life.

Remember, seeking professional help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It shows that you prioritize your well-being and are willing to make changes to ensure a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Reaching Out to Support Networks

In addition to seeking professional help, it’s crucial to reach out to your friends, family, and social networks for support. Talking to those you trust about your experiences can help validate your feelings and provide different perspectives on your situation.

Organizations like Break the Cycle are dedicated to supporting young people looking to end and prevent abusive relationships. They offer guidance on identifying red flags and resources to help you break away from unsupportive partners. Reaching out to these types of organizations can not only provide a sense of community and understanding but also guidance on how to seek help and find healthier relationships in the future.

Don’t shy away from leaning on your support network. The people who care about you want to see you in a joyful, loving, and respectful relationship. By sharing your experiences and seeking their guidance, you’re allowing yourself the chance to regain your strength and make informed decisions about your future relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I recognize controlling behavior early on?

Recognizing controlling behavior early on is key to ensure you don’t get trapped in a toxic relationship. Pay attention to how your partner communicates. 

A controlling partner may have a tendency to constantly question your choices to the point of undermining your confidence. For instance, they may criticize your outfit, question your choice of restaurant, or belittle your life decisions. Trust your gut feelings. If it feels disrespectful, it probably is.

Another early sign of controlling behavior is when your partner starts isolating you from your friends and family. They may insist on spending all your free time together and might discourage you from socializing with others to gain a sense of control. Keep in mind that a healthy relationship should include a balance between together-time and alone-time, as well as connections with family and friends.

Lastly, take note of whether your partner exhibits unjust jealousy. Jealousy is natural in moderation, but if your partner tries to monitor your whereabouts and keeps tabs on who you interact with, it might be an early warning sign. A great rule of thumb is if they treat you like a prisoner rather than a partner, it’s time to evaluate the relationship.

What are common red flags of a dominating partner?

One common red flag of a dominating partner is their need to be right all the time. They could argue endlessly over minor matters and expect you to concede their point. It might seem trivial at first, but your feelings and opinions matter too. A healthy relationship allows room for both parties to voice their thoughts and reach a compromise.

Another red flag is a partner who uses emotional manipulation tactics, such as guilt-tripping or instilling fear. For example, they might say something like, “If you really loved me, you’d do this for me” or “You’ll never find someone who loves you as much as I do.” These are attempts to control your emotions and manipulate you into doing what they want.

Financial control is another red flag. If your partner starts dictating how you can spend money or demands full access to your bank accounts, it can signify their dominating behavior. Independence is crucial in a relationship, and your finances should be no exception.

How do control issues manifest in a relationship?

Control issues can manifest in various ways, including excessive possessiveness, distrust, or even physical control. This often stems from a partner’s fear of losing the relationship or their own insecurities. It’s important to remember that change should come from within—a controlling partner needs to address their fears and insecurity before any improvements can be seen in the relationship.

Constant criticism is another way control issues manifest in relationships. A partner with control issues might nitpick everything you do, offer unsolicited advice, or make passive-aggressive comments. This can lead to a constant feeling of walking on eggshells, which is not conducive to a loving, supportive relationship.

Lastly, control issues can manifest as a partner monitoring your every move. This could be in the form of checking your phone, driving by your workplace, or accessing your social media accounts. While some partners may claim this behavior is meant to protect you, it’s essential to differentiate between caring and controlling.

What are the early warning signs of manipulative behavior?

Manipulative behavior can be subtle at first and intensify over time. One early warning sign is the use of flattery to win you over. While compliments are nice, manipulative people tend to overdo it to gain your trust and favor.

Playing the victim is another warning sign. A manipulative partner may share a sob story or present themselves as a constant victim to gain sympathy and manipulate your emotions. Be wary of partners who always seem to be in crisis and require your assistance and reassurance.

A third warning sign is indirect communication or mixed messages. Manipulative partners often avoid direct conversations or giving a clear response, leaving you feeling unsure of their intentions. This tactic ensures that they can backtrack or change their stance, making it difficult for you to confront them about inconsistencies.

How do you differentiate between caring and controlling?

While it’s important to receive care and support from your partner, it’s equally important to maintain independence and healthy boundaries within the relationship. A caring partner offers help and advice when asked, without imposing their own decisions or belittling your choices. They respect your autonomy and trust your judgment.

On the other hand, a controlling partner may make decisions on your behalf without consulting you. This could be in various aspects of your life, from your career to your social circle. If a partner is always deciding for you or pressuring you into making certain choices, it’s indicative of controlling behavior rather than concern.

It’s also important to recognize the intent behind their actions. While a caring partner might express concern about your safety on a late-night walk, a controlling partner might try to stop you from going out altogether. Reflect on whether their actions seem like genuine care or covert attempts at control.

What indicates a potential for emotional abuse?

An early sign of potential emotional abuse is the use of insults and humiliation. This could take the form of name-calling, belittling your accomplishments, or making fun of your fears and insecurities. Remember that a loving partner should uplift you, not tear you down.

Constant criticism is another indication of potential emotional abuse. An emotionally abusive partner may criticize your appearance, your friends, and your choices in an attempt to control your actions and wear down your self-esteem.

Lastly, keep an eye out for emotional manipulation tactics, such as gaslighting or playing the victim. These strategies aim to control your feelings and reactions, eventually leading to a loss of self-confidence and the inability to recognize the abusive behavior. If you notice any of these early warning signs, consider seeking professional help or confiding in a trusted friend.

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